27 Mar A Photo Essay: Winter in Fairbanks, Alaska
After a winter visit to Anchorage, Alaska, we told ourselves that going forward we weren’t going to any more cold weather destinations in the winter. Yes, we had a blast in Anchorage, but we live in frigid Minnesota. A warm winter escape is almost a necessity after a few months of temperatures that plunge far below 0ºF. Well, all that changed the following year when I got the urge to head back to Alaska in January. I was reminiscing about our previous winter trip to the state and proposed another visit. Micah quickly agreed, and we found ourselves planning a last-minute trip back to “The Last Frontier”. This time around though, we had our sights set on winter in Fairbanks.
We wanted to see a different city, and the conditions for northern lights in Fairbanks looked pretty promising. Plus, the hot springs located a short drive away from the city sounded spectacular, as well. Throughout our visit, we went hiking, snowmobiling, searching for northern lights, soaking in hot springs, touring an ice museum, and more.
So, remember when I mentioned the temperatures in Minnesota get pretty chilly in the winter? Yeah…the week before our departure to Fairbanks we had a couple weeks of temperatures that dropped to -23ºF (-30ºC) with wind chills of -40ºF (40ºC). Just as Minnesota was starting to warm up to temperatures around 0ºF (-17ºC), we made our way to Fairbanks to find the temperatures dropping to what we had just experienced in Minnesota. This meant we endured almost a solid month of extremely frigid temperatures. At least we were used to it, I guess…
Even with the ridiculously cold temps, we made ourselves get out to explore when we arrived in Fairbanks. Much of the city was shut down and closed during our visit as we were there before the big tourist rush in March, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We absolutely loved wandering around downtown Fairbanks both by foot and by car. Heavy snow drenched scenes were everywhere, and it felt as though we in a dreamy snow globe.
On our first evening in town, we decided to head out and search for northern lights. We were planning on going to Aurora Pointe Activity Center, but the forecast for cloudy skies didn’t make the price of admission seem worth it. Instead, we parked our car nearby and waited…and waited…and waited. Eventually, we saw a green glow peeking out from behind the clouds. We managed to capture a few photos, but most of our scenery that evening consisted of snow-covered trees and a car buried deep in the snow. Not exactly what we were hoping for, but it was a fun evening regardless.
We stayed at an affordable Best Western Hotel near downtown Fairbanks for most of our trip, but one night we decided that it would be fun to head out to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. We booked a last-minute room when we arrived and got ready to tour the onsite Aurora Ice Museum, soak in the Chena Hot Springs, and search for northern lights in a mountaintop yurt.
First up, we toured the Aurora Ice Museum, which is surprisingly open year-round. The museum opened in 2005, and inside the temperatures remain 25ºF every day of the year. To visit the ice museum, you have to sign up for one of the scheduled tours that run throughout the day. During the tour, you learn all sorts of facts about the ice museum and then you are free to roam. There is an ice bar inside where you can order an Appletini served in an ice glass. You will also find plenty of stunning ice sculptures, as well as the machinery used to make the ice glasses. The museum reminds us of the Ice Hotel we stayed at recently in Quebec City!
After exploring so much ice, we figured it was high time for a soak in the hot springs. The hot spring lake holds an average temperature of 106ºF all year long. The contrast of the hot water with the freezing cold air outside was exhilarating! The steam coming off the water wet our hair, which was promptly frozen. It was hot, cold, relaxing, and laughable all in one!
That evening, we decided to give northern lights hunting another chance. This time around, we decided to go on a tour at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. After dark, we met at the activity center and hopped into a giant snow coach that took us up into the mountains. We arrived at our destination to find a yurt surrounded by trees and a clear view of the sky. The only problem was, once again, the conditions just weren’t in our favor for northern lights viewing. We spent the next 4 hours playing games and drinking hot coffee inside the yurt while crossing our fingers for the lights to arrive outside. Unfortunately, they never did come out to play. Oh well. Once again, it was still a fun evening regardless.
When we were back in Fairbanks, we decided to learn about the region’s history and visited the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. We enjoyed the wide range of exhibits in the museum, and after touring the museum, we spent some time researching nearby hiking trails.
I had found several locations that looked promising for a fun winter hike, but in the end, we only made it to one of them because it was just so dang cold outside. The day of our hike, temperatures were still hovering around -23ºF (-30ºC), but we went to Creamers Field anyway. We decided to hike the Boreal Forest Trail, which is just over 2 miles long. It was a short hike, but by the time we finished, my eyelashes were frozen, and our camera batteries were dead (cold weather really does a number on batteries!) All in all, we spent a couple of hours exploring the area—once again, the scenery was just too pretty to resist.
We also made our way to Pioneer Park, which is a historic village with original buildings from downtown Fairbanks. The park’s shops and restaurants are closed in the winter, but in the summer, it looks like it is quite the happening place. We enjoyed walking through the deserted streets, as we imagined what the area was like 100 years ago.
During our second to last full night in Fairbanks, the power went out in what felt like the entire city. In reality, it was probably about half of the town, but most places were closed and we were starving. We were intending to go to Silver Gulch Brewing for dinner, but when we arrived, we found the entire place was dark. Instead, we drove around in search of food. Literally, the only place we found that was open and had power was Wendy’s, so we made our way to the drive through. Luckily, the next evening things were looking up and we were able to give Silver Gulch Brewing another shot—this time with the lights on!
Several of the restaurants that we wanted to visit in Fairbanks were closed for the season, but we still managed to find some great places to eat. A few of our favorites were The Cookie Jar Restaurant, The Alaska Cheesesteak Company, Chena Hot Springs Restaurant, and Little Owl Café. We actually ended up enjoying Little Owl Café so much that we went twice—their sandwiches, sweets, and smoothies were top notch.
Seeking out coffee shops is always a must when we travel, and we found several great cups of Joe in Fairbanks. One coffee shop that we particularly enjoyed was Venue. In addition to being a coffee bar, they provide a space for music, art, and events, plus a shop that sells items crafted by local artists and makers.
There was also an adorable little drive up coffee stand right next to our hotel. Sunrise Bagel & Espresso got quite a bit of business when we were in town!
Our last day in Fairbanks came way too soon, but we were excited because we had something fun scheduled. We were heading to the North Pole (not the actual pole, but a town near Fairbanks!) for a snowmobile adventure. North Pole is an adorable town that definitely takes the Christmas season to heart year-round. They even have candy cane street lamps! When we arrived at Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service, we suited up in their warm boots and all of our winter gear. It was -29ºF, but we were still ready to get out and ride. We had a blast flying through the trails lined with snow drenched trees, and we even spotted a few moose along the way.
After our tour, we followed our guides suggestion and grabbed dinner at a Thai restaurant, creatively named Thai Cuisine Restaurant, in North Pole (of all places, am I right?!). Next, we drove back to Fairbanks and prepared for our 1:30 a.m. departure. We made our way to Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. where we spent a couple of hours sipping on hot coffee and snacking on some of the most amazing rice crispy bars known to man.
Then, at 9:00 p.m., we hopped back in our car and decided to give the northern lights one more chance. We drove out to the Alyeska Pipeline Viewing Point and waited. Luckily, this time around, the conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t long until the aurora came out to play. It was just like our previous trip to Alaska. The northern lights finally decided to show themselves before our middle of the night flight home to Minnesota.
Even though our trip seemed to be plagued with bad weather and an array of mishaps, we still had an amazing time. And there’s no denying it…Alaska sure does know how to send us off right!